Saturday, 16 October 2010


In many churches you will come across hatchments on the walls, a coat of arms painted on a diamond board with a black wooden frame. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was common practice, amongst the gentry, to attach a hatchment above the front door of the house following their death. The prescribed mourning period was a year after which the hatchment was removed to the local church where it was intended to be kept in perpetuity - given that not every church has hatchments this evidently has not always happened.

The Victorians, in particular, codified mourning with strict rules (funnily enough mainly applicable to widows rather than widowers) formalising how to behave and what to wear following a bereavement. Given the high mortality rate at the time a code of conduct made sense so that everyone knew at what stage of bereavement the mourner was at.

According to Wikepedia for a bachelor the hatchment bears his arms (shield, crest, and other appendages) on a black lozenge. For a single woman, her arms are represented upon a lozenge, bordered with knotted ribbons, also on a black lozenge. If the hatchment is for a married man, with a surviving wife, his arms (on the left) impale those of his wife; or if she is an heraldic heiress they are placed upon an escutcheon of pretence, and crest and other appendages are added. The dexter half of the background is black (the husband being dead), the sinister half of the background is white (his wife still being alive).

For a wife whose husband is alive the same arrangement is used, but the sinister background is black (for the wife) and the dexter background is white (for the surviving husband). For a widower the same is used as for a married man, but the whole ground is black (both spouses being dead); for a widow the husband's arms are given with her own, but upon a lozenge, with ribbons, without crest or appendages, and the whole ground is black. When there have been two wives or two husbands the ground may be divided in a number of different ways. Sometimes the shield is divided into three parts per pale, with the husband's arms in the middle section and the arms of each of his wives to each side of him. Sometimes the husband's arms remain in the dexter half and the two wives have their arms in the sinister half, divided per fess, each wife having one quarter of the whole shield, one half of the sinister half.

As well as funeral hatchments you often find Royal Coats of Arms, often above the north or south doorways, and these were to emphasise the monarch's position as head of the Church of England.From the moment of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, it became necessary to underline the monarch’s authority as head of the church, and this was done by substituting the king’s arms for the rood figure which was placed above the rood screen. Elizabeth I ordered that all churches should display the arms, but not all churches did so, and it became accepted practice only after 1660. When the archdeacons made their periodic visitations to check that churches were being properly run, those without the arms were very likely to be admonished!

Many coats of arms in churches were on boards painted by local sign painters and craftsmen. Sometimes the painting over of earlier arms can be seen. Others were higher quality pieces carved on wood or stone. It has been estimated that only around a fifth of the arms once displayed in churches can still be found, largely due to the years of the Commonwealth, when Royal Arms were not particularly popular with Parliamentarians.

Flickr set.

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